Harvard University assistant professor discusses perceptions of MLK

Much of King’s vitality has been lost, says Brandon Terry


(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

By Andrea Hanley, Collegian Staff

Following the 50-year mark since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, one can only speculate about how one of the most renowned civil rights activists would see the world as we know it today.

Amongst an ever-changing world in an era of technological innovation, Brandon Terry, assistant professor of African American studies and social studies at Harvard University, took from King’s methodologies and mentalities to illustrate the lens through which he would perceive today’s world on Thursday evening at Amherst College.

King was a “figure of consensus and conciliation…his ability to distill the deep moral consensus at the heart of our culture and dramatize how Jim Crow racism violated those commitments is there to remind us, as it were, of what we already know,” Terry said.

In the modern world, however, Terry fears the fire that was fueled by King’s vitality has burned out and that his true platform of peace, virtue and democracy has been covered with a quilt of overused sentiments sewn together by the fabric of time.

“Taxingly, King became a defender of a Constitution that he came to consider unjust for its lack of rights to economic equity as a dreamer, fantasizing about interracial fraternity rather than a radical opponent of de facto segregation, advocating experiments in metropolitan government,” said Terry. “…even in setting aside the conservative gaslighting…such representations make it all too easy to ignore King’s persistent attempt to jar America out of complacency and corruption.”

But it’s not only the stereotypical opposition that Terry fears. “Unfortunately, many of the attempts to resist this tendency by the left also suffer from an unwillingness to treat King as a significant figure and public philosopher rather than a source of ready-at-hand quotations to conjure a federal authority.”

Terry said that the “inevitable result” is “a public sphere so littered with general references to King that it would be difficult to rescue his enduring vitality.” Terry said, “This is a tragedy.”

William Coughlin, a senior economics and philosophy major at Amherst College, said, “You mentioned his position on civil disobedience, and you mentioned how a lot of people kind of tend to over-focus on the moral aspect of it…So, is the idea then that we kind of focus too much on the political aspect and not the practical value of it?”

Terry replied, “People describe him as moral-less as a kind of distinction with realist… and King is someone who says that the whole point of civil disobedience is to object to some unjust law—something that doesn’t conform with the natural law.”

Terry continued, “there is too much focus on King based upon that formulation of morality and not enough focus on civil disobedience where he connects it much more to a political concept of the oppressed, [such as] why is it that the oppressed people might want to gravitate toward this form of politics as opposed to the anticipatory realist element about how he theorizes white supremacy, inequality and militarism…and how you want to treat your opponents.”

Lucas Newman-Johnson, a junior computer science and philosophy major at Amherst College, said, “I was very interested by your discussion and by how coercion can change especially in the current climate of social media and particularly the sort of the insulation it creates, and how King’s coercive nonviolence is able to create a sense of awakening…and it seems to me like that is sort of lost in a time where people read all sorts of what they want on the news and tend to believe it, so I was wondering if you think political discourse online is unsuccessful, and if we can find success in different ways of doing it?”

“I wish I had the answer,” Terry said. “I think it’s one of the toughest questions of our age…are the cultural conditions existent any longer such that people are capable of feeling ashamed by massive forms of social injustice in their society? There are all these conditions about forms of visibility and invisibility that we can perceive before we can even raise that question.”

Andrea Hanley can be reached at [email protected]